(New throughout, adds Anwar and political analysts comments, PVS Kuala Lumpur)
By Razak Ahmad and David Chance
IPOH, Malaysia, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Malaysia’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim faced calls to quit on Sunday after losing control of a key state to the ruling party when four of his state legislators defected.
Last week the National Front government, in power in Malaysia for 51 years, seized control of Perak, one of five opposition-held states, a move that analysts said would shore up the credibility of incoming premier Najib Razak.
The defections came after Anwar tried to strengthen the majority of his opposition People’s Alliance in Perak by winning over legislators from the main United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party in the poor and disadvantaged state.
Two of the People’s Alliance state legislators who switched sides are in court on corruption charges, something that raises questions over whether Najib’s promises to reform UMNO and deal with its history of graft will be carried out.
“It’s time Pakatan (the People’s Alliance) got itself another leader,” said Karpal Singh who is Chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of three parties in Anwar’s People’s Alliance coalition.
A defiant Anwar, who leads a three-party opposition embracing Islamists, reformers and the DAP, told 5,000 cheering supporters in Perak that his coalition had not asked him to step aside and vowed to carry on governing the state.
He will also mount a legal challenge to the shift in power.
“Our fate is not decided by people who can be bought over and threatened but is decided by the people,” the 61-year old former deputy prime minister said on Sunday.
Malaysia’s predictable political scene has been thrown into disarray by the opposition’s success in general elections in March last year when it won control of five of 13 states and deprived the government of a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was forced to say he would step down in March and the opposition has since scored two big by-election wins, including one where Anwar was returned to parliament for the first time in 10 years.
Abdullah will be replaced after March elections in UMNO, the main party in the National Front coalition, by Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak who orchestrated the defections in Perak.
Najib is the son of Malaysia’s second prime minister and is viewed as a politician who will seek to energise the majority Malay population who represent UMNO’s core supporters.
As well as battling Anwar and seeking to secure his position in UMNO polls in March, Najib is designing a fiscal package to help Malaysia counter the global economic slowdown which threatens the first recession in Malaysia for 8 years.
“Perak marks the start of a long and intense battle ahead, with the opposition going hard on the issue of the coup to build up anti-National Front sentiments nationwide,” said Northern University of Malaysia political analyst Mohamed Mustafa Ishak.
UMNO wants to represent the near 60 percent of Malaysians who are ethnic Malay but it needs to work in a coalition with ethnic Chinese and Indian parties to govern this country of 27 million people.
Najib’s power-play in Perak could see him attempt similar feats in other opposition-ruled states and looks set to ratchet up racial tensions as he seeks to appeal to the Malay majority.
“Implicitly and explicitly, the use of race is a central element of the Perak change in government,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Johns Hopkins University.
Divisions within the opposition will also be hard to fix after Najib’s skilful handling of the defections, Welsh said.
“PKR (the People’s Alliance) has been damaged since it shows how fickle some of its members are and the inability of Anwar Ibrahim to keep the party members together,” she said. (Editing by Louise Ireland)